How To Become a Costume Designer
What Exactly Does a Costume Designer Do?
The job of a Costume Designer is to define the character through costume. Stephen James, who has worked on various films as the head Designer and in other supporting positions says, “It goes from head to toe. The Costume Designer selects accessories and apparel to communicate who a character is, where they’re from, and what role in the story they play. So much of filmmaking is the visual images. As a Costume Designer, a person gets the privilege to make the first impression of how the audience will view a character, as well as every subsequent moment after that.”
The first step in the design process is to read the script and meet the Director. This provides a familiarization with characters and story. From there, the Costume Designer researches the time period and creates sketches or a mood board for the Director to review. After an aesthetic has been agreed upon, the Costume Designer will work with their team to either build or shop for costumes. This is the pre-production process.
When production hits, the Costume Designer manages their team and makes sure that each costume is implemented in the way in which it was intended. This can include continuity, use in the correct scene, and dressing the Actors. Each production varies but there is always a lot of responsibility when it comes to handling what each Actor wears.
Advancement as a Costume Designer is different for everyone. James states, “The conventional path for costuming is to start as a Production Assistant and then move up to assisting a particular aspect of costume in whatever needs they have. This could be pickups, returns, draping, stitching or sketching. These practical skills will create the necessary foundation required for being an effective Costume Designer. When someone is ready to make the jump to designing they typically start out by working on independent films then move onto larger projects as their work gets well-known.”
Advancing as a Costume Designer means learning the practical skills by assisting professionals on set and then building a reputation. There is no set time frame but it can take years to find success.
Education & Training
There are many different programs for learning how to become a Costume Designer. James says, “It’s important to find a program that teaches the fundamentals. That could even be learning theatrical costume design. A lot of the principles can translate to film. The advantage of going to school is a person can learn different methods and is exposed to the vast history of design. However, some people forgo going to school and begin in the commercial world. This approach allows an individual to build contacts while working on two to three day shoots with limited characters.”
Going to school for costume design creates a good foundation but it isn’t always necessary. People looking to become Costume Designers need to figure out the best way that they learn, whether it is on the job or in an academic setting.
What skills do you need to be a Costume Designer?
“I would say the most important thing for a Costume Designer is to have an eye for detail. That includes developing an analytical point of view that really dissects characters. They need to know why a character would choose to wear something and what it communicates to the audience about them. Also, if it’s a period piece or takes place in a specific region then the Costume Designer needs to familiarize themselves with that atmosphere. It lends an authenticity to the film. Another skill that can be handy is knowing how to sew. Some Costume Designers hire Stitchers but if a person can pick up that skill set, either at school or on the job, it will prove invaluable,” says James. Becoming a Costume Designer requires a specific attitude toward knowledge and character. It is less about knowing one set of facts but how to learn new ones for each upcoming job.
James says, “The best personality for a Costume Designer is to be a go-getter. They need to be willing to work long hours, giving an intense degree of attention to details. This characteristic will improve their ability to think analytically. The criticality of their thought process will create a strong aesthetic and style. It also supports confidence, which is important when it comes to conveying their ideas effectively to the Director.”
It doesn’t matter if a Costume Designer is an introvert or extrovert. While social skills will help them progress in their career, the merit of their ideas will take them further. This important position requires diligence and a tenacity that is held by a select few.
The lifestyle of a Costume Designer is contingent on the shoot they’re working on and what stage of production it is in. James says, “A Costume Designer is typically working five to six days a week, with eight to sixteen hours per day. This is obviously quite intense so often they will take downtime after completing a gig before looking for more work. It’s up to the individual to schedule their own time and determine when they’re ready to take on a new project.”
When it comes to days, evenings, or weekends, the Costume Designer works whenever the production needs them. They must be there to supervise wardrobe so if it’s an all-night shoot they need to be there until dawn. The sporadic and long hours can make it difficult to have a conventional life.
The biggest artistic collaborator for a Costume Designer is the Director. However, their day-to-day contacts are the Assistant Costumer, Illustrator, Shopper(s), Drapers and any Production Assistants assigned to the department. The Costume Designer also attends all meetings with key crew such as the Cinematographer, Key Hair, Key Makeup, Production Designer, Key Grip, and Gaffer to make sure that they’re all creating a unified aesthetic.
James says, “Most people’s first position will be as a Production Assistant, usually as a general one, then working specifically for the wardrobe department. This is the best way to start working in a costume shop and to meet Costume Designers.” This is the first job most people can get. After they gain experience they will be able to move up to positions with more responsibility and eventually to becoming a Costume Designer. Some people start designing early on for small projects and then gradually move up to bigger ones. At that point, a person’s career will be determined by their skill level and ability to select interesting projects.
How Much Does a Costume Designer make?
Working as a Costume Designer is a freelance position so there aren’t any included benefits and rates vary project to project. James says, “When someone is trying to get their first job as a Costume Designer they’ll often do it on spec to build their portfolio.” Once a Costume Designer has proven him or herself and can display experience, they can get $300 to $600 per day, including prep, to work on an independent production. For a studio film, the rate is much higher, usually from $3,000 to $12,000 per day. It’s important for each individual to keep track of their worth and what rate they can get from the marketplace at any given moment.
Unions, Groups & Associations
James recommends “checking out the unions for Costume. The local 892 is LA and it handles Costume Designers, Assistant Costume Designers, and Illustrators. Guild 705 takes care of everything else that’s on set, including Stitchers, Drapers, Shoppers and everything between those classifications. Understanding those two guilds will show how someone can advance within the industry. Outside of the guilds, there are different blogs, like Frocktalk and Clothes on Film. Many people in the industry have their own blogs, as well. So, if a particular Costume Designer speaks to an aspiring person’s aesthetic then they should follow them.”
When researching guilds, it’s good to remember that they are local so they have different rules. Figuring out what those are will also give more insight into the career path of becoming a Costume Designer.
- Individuals should familiarize themselves with costume history, particularly in film.
- Practice basic costume construction along with basic sewing.
- Watch movies and figure out why Costume Designers made a choice.
- Read scripts and do designs to build a portfolio for pitching Directors and Producers.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The best thing someone who wants to become a Costume Designer can do is to stay focused and try to keep working in the industry, even if it’s not as a Costume Designer. That could include working as a Stylist, sewing, or becoming a Buyer. Be prepared to use all of your skill sets available to stay in the game and keep learning. A person doesn’t have to just do costume design to improve their skills. What’s important is to always keep improving, no matter what, because it’s ultimately a marathon, not a sprint.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake people make is to try and move up too fast. They try to take on costume design jobs instead of diversifying their skill set. Becoming a Costume Designer isn’t just the aesthetics but also managing a team. They’ve got to make sure that each cog in their department is running smoothly and efficiently. When someone is too focused on just designing they’ll also miss out on the learning opportunities and networking that comes from working under a more experienced professional. The more someone is able to expand their network, the better people they will be able to employ when becoming a Costume Designer, which will ultimately make their first opportunity easier. Sometimes the fastest way to move up the chain is to go sideways.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Why can’t an Actor pick their own clothes?
Every choice in costume design is very specific and it means something more than just putting people in clothes or letting an Actor choose their wardrobe. Every detail and color have a meaning, even if it’s just subliminal for the audience to pick up. While an Actor may be deeply in touch with their character, they’re usually not part of the conversations that happen with the other crew heads. Sometimes a Costume Designer will work with an Actor in choosing one costume over another, but ultimately, they oversee designing that aesthetic.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Why is it especially important for a Costume Designer to have a diverse skill set?
It takes a long time to become a Costume Designer. The opportunities to work on good projects are few and far between. It’s those opportunities that will advance a Costume Designer’s career. If they work on bad films then it can decrease their ability to get hired in the future. So, if a Designer has a diverse skill set they can work under the radar, staying in the business making connections, while waiting for a worthwhile project to collaborate on. One large aspect of working as a Costume Designer is knowing what projects to take. Having a diverse skill set will allow an individual to be more selective.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Stephen James is a Los Angeles based Costume Designer and creator. His work has encompassed film, television, live performance, editorial, and animation. James received his BFA in Costume Design from CalArts in 2011. He has worked as a Concept Artist for performances by Katy Perry and Britney Spears and a Costume Maker for Tokio Hotel. Recent credits include James’ work as a Costume Fabricator on Robot Chicken and SuperMansion.